NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 14 - The Eagles)

NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 14 - The Eagles)

I like all birds but my favorite are, without a doubt, the birds of prey (raptors). And among raptors, there are none I enjoy watching more than the eagles. Eagles are the absolute kings (or should I say queens, since the females are bigger!) of the sky. They are powerful apex predators that play a crucial role in keeping our ecosystems healthy. Raptors in general are top predators, but eagles are the top of the top.

Eagles belong to the Accipitridae family, together with hawks, kites, Old World vultures and several other diurnal raptors. There are numerous eagle species on earth, each adapted to certain types of prey. Some species will opportunistically take invertebrates like insects, but all eagles are primarily predators of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish).

With 22 species recorded, Kenya is one of the world's most eagle-rich countries. To put this into context, the entire North American continent, for example, only has two species (!): the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). This richness of eagle species is an indicator of Kenya's overall wildlife richness.

let's take a closer look at some of the magnificent eagles that can be seen in Kenya ...

One of Kenya's commonest eagles is the Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax). They are found pretty much throughout the country's savanna and open bush habitats. They're quite flexible in their diet and will take almost any small animal they can catch. They also don't mind scavenging and can be seen at carcasses with vultures.

A Tawny Eagle (below) and White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) perched together shortly after having a good feed on the Athi Plains. The Tawny is perhaps Africa's commonest eagle, but it is sadly declining quite fast and was recently uplisted from Least Concern to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Very similar to the Tawny but typically darker and stockier in appearance is the Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis). This species breeds in the mountains and steppes of central Asia but occurs in Kenya from around October to March, when they can be very common. Sadly it isn't faring any better than the Tawny and is listed as Endangered.

A much rarer Palearctic migrant eagle in Kenya is the Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca), which breeds in eastern Europe and Asia and spends the winter in north-eastern Africa. This is a blurry distant photo of the first and only time I have ever seen this eagle. Taken at Lake Magadi in January this year. The species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Other not-so-common Palearctic eagles that migrate to Kenya during the northern winter include the Greater Spotted Eagle (Clanga clanga) and Lesser Spotted Eagle (Clanga pomarina).

Among the Aquila eagles, one of the biggest and most impressive is the Verreaux's Eagle (Aquila verreauxii) - a very large black eagle with a white 'vest' on its back. It patrols rugged hills, mountains and cliffs in search of hyraxes, its main prey. Pairs often hunt as a team, with one bird distracting the prey while the other goes in for the kill.

The white 'vest' and typical pinched-in shape of the wings make the Verreaux's Eagle (or Black Eagle) unmistakable. This photo was taken at Lukenya Hill, just south of Nairobi.

(Here is a great book on identifying the eagles of Kenya and the rest of Africa)

Another eagle known to utilize teamwork when hunting is the African Hawk Eagle (Aquila spilogaster). Although not very large, it is impressively strong for its size and can kill prey heavier than itself. I've also heard that it is Africa's fastest eagle (although I don't know if that's true). They are important predators of gamebirds like Guineafowls and Francolins in dry woodland and wooded savannas.

Wahlberg's Eagle (Hieraaetus wahlbergi) can be seen in Kenya's open woodlands and is a partial intra-African migrant. Birds that breed in Kenya generally spend the non-breeding months in the North African tropics. This species and the Tawny Eagle are highly polymorphic, with birds ranging in color from very dark to almost pure white.

A close relative of Wahlberg's Eagle that is equally as polymorphic is the Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus). This species is also migratory, but unlike the Wahlberg's it breeds in the Palearctic region (Europe and Asia) and spends the non-breeding months in Africa. Most Booted Eagles that we get in Kenya are usually in passage, on their way further south (or back north), but some do spend the winter in Kenya. The pale individual pictured above was flying over the Ngulia Hills, Tsavo West National Park, on its southward migration.

In Kenya's moister and denser woodlands, you can find the small but compact Ayres's Hawk Eagle (Hieraaetus ayresii) - bird hunter extraordinaire. They are particularly fond of doves and other birds of similar size. My personal observation is that this eagle is doing quite well in Kenya. I see it frequently in many parts of the country (but maybe I'm just lucky!).

A juvenile Ayres's Hawk Eagle at the University of Nairobi's Upper Kabete Field

The most famous and iconic eagle in Africa is undoubtedly the African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer). This supreme hunter of fish belongs to an elite group of very successful eagles known as the Sea Eagles or Fish Eagles (subfamily Haliaeetinae). They include some of the largest eagles on the planet, such as Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) and the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), national emblem of the USA, also belongs to this group. These eagles are uniquely adapted to hunting fish, but also opportunistically take other prey such as waterbirds (ducks, herons, flamingos etc).

Snake Eagles (subfamily Circaetinae) are another group of eagles that are uniquely adapted to a particular diet. They are snake hunters par excellence. Their feet are small and spiculated while their leg muscles are large and strong. This gives them a vice-like grip. Perfect adaptations for catching and killing snakes promptly with minimal risk to themselves. Pictured above is a Black-chested Snake Eagle (Circaetus pectoralis) - one of the commonest Snake Eagles in Kenya.

Black-chested Snake Eagle on a power line in Narok. Electrocution on power lines is one of the biggest threats to eagles in Kenya. Retrofitting with plastic hoods for example can make electricity lines safer for wildlife and save money by preventing blackouts associated with bird/wildlife electrocution. Making Kenya's power grid safer for wildlife should be among the major conservation priorities as the country develops.

Brown Snake Eagles (Circaetus cinereus) are fairly widespread in Kenya's dryer savannas and are especially fond of areas with baobab trees. This one was in Tsavo West National Park.

The most unmistakable Snake Eagle in Kenya is the Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus). 'Bateleur' derives from a French word that refers to a street performer or tightrope walker - a reference to this bird's unique way of gliding while tilting from side to side like someone walking on a tightrope. Its behavior is also unique among Snake Eagles as a substantial percentage of its diet comprises of carrion. This tendency to scavenge a lot makes this species, and the Tawny Eagle, vulnerable to poisoning. Other Snake Eagles known from Kenya include the Western Banded Snake Eagle (Circaetus cinerascens), Southern Banded Snake Eagle (Circaetus fasciolatus), Beaudouin's Snake Eagle (Circaetus beaudouini) and Short-toed Snake Eagle (Circaetus gallicus).

A unique eagle that many Kenyans will have seen as it's fairly common in farmland and wooded residential areas is the Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis). Whether perched or in flight, this species is always very photogenic. One of the most beautiful eagles in the world if you ask me. The one above was in the fever tree woodland of Lake Nakuru National Park.

Long-crested Eagle in flight - Mount Mtelo, West Pokot County

Another eagle that is very impressive, especially if you're lucky enough to watch it making a kill, is the Martial Eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus) - Africa's heaviest eagle and reputedly among the most pugnacious on the planet.

Pair of Martial Eagles in Nairobi National Park. This species is widespread in the savannas, but is never very common due to the huge area of territory each pair requires. Their spatial requirements are very similar to those of the big cats.

Last but not least is the king of the forests. The so-called 'leopard of the sky' - the Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus). This is Africa's most powerful eagle, and pound for pound is possibly the most powerful bird of prey in the world. Its extremely powerful feet and huge talons (hind talon is longer than a lion's canines!) allow it to kill prey that can be many times its own body weight. They've been known to kill antelopes weighing almost 30 kg! It's said they can kill even bigger things than that but the risks involved with tackling such large prey probably outweigh the benefits. Not bad for a bird that weighs barely 5 kg itself! In Kenya, they occur in many of the larger forests and forest patches throughout the country. But, like the Martial, they require large territories and are therefore never very numerous. 

Just as big cats, hyenas and wolves play a vital role in controlling the populations of large animals like antelopes, deer, zebra and buffalo; eagles are key predators of the world's small and medium-sized vertebrates (up to the size of storks, monitor lizards, monkeys and small antelopes).

We need them in order for our ecosystems to continue functioning properly and providing us with all the economic, social and cultural benefits we enjoy.

Kenya is well-endowed with eagles. This is a heritage that Kenyans should conserve with pride. The country would definitely not be the same without them!

Keep learning about the incredible birds of Kenya through the rest of the Ndege Wetu series.

Learn more about the amazing birds of Kenya and other parts of Africa from our Birds of Africa blog.

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